Hamlett, Smith could be best 1-2 punch ever for Beavs

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Connor Hamlett, a 6-7 junior tight end from Edmonds, Wash., has 23 receptions in five games this season for Oregon State.CORVALLIS -- When Oregon State visits Washington State for a 7:30 p.m. Saturday Pac-12 contest, the WSU secondary will focus on Brandin Cooks and, to a lesser extent, fellow wideout Richard Mullaney.

The Cougars would be wise, though, not to sleep on tight ends Connor Hamlett and Caleb Smith.

Hamlett, a 6-7, 265-pound junior, and Smith, a 6-6, 260-pound sophomore, are major weapons in Oregon State's aerial attack that ranks second nationally. Hamlett (23 receptions for 185 yards and three touchdowns) and Smith (10 receptions, 134 yards, two TDs) are also prime targets for quarterback Sean Mannion, the nation's leading passer.

The Beavers (4-1 overall, 2-0 in Pac-12 action) often use a two tight-end set, usually with Smith in the backfield as an H-back. Normally, that means help in the run game. Thus far this season, it has been more of an asset with the passing attack.

"With Connor and Caleb in there together, we have two guys who can catch the ball," OSU coach Mike Riley says. "They're also committed to being blockers. They know they're an important part of pass protection or run-blocking. They play a real big role in what we do offensively."

When Riley employs the two tight-end set, "that's our field day," Smith says. "Connor and I have done a good job of using our size and athleticism to beat guys downfield, and we've done a pretty good job in the run game."

Hamlett, Smith and 6-5, 245-pound sophomore Kellen Clute (four catches, 17 yards, two scores) are especially dangerous in the red zone and make it difficult for opposing defenses to double-cover Cooks, the nation's leading receiver.

"A lot of teams are going to roll their coverage to Cooks," says Hamlett, who sat out last week with a sore knee but expects to be 100 percent Saturday. "We can be that release valve. All of us can make plays. We've shown that so far."

Hamlett caught 32 passes for 403 yards and three TDs in his first year as a starter last season. He's on pace to obliterate that with much higher numbers this year and make a run at Joe Newton's school single-season receptions record at tight end with 56 in 2004.

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Hamlett"Connor has progressed each year," Riley says. "His knowledge of our offense is very good. He has good chemistry with Sean. He is a big kid who is athletic and has a great target area. He's what we need in our offense."

"Connor will go up and catch the ball over anybody," says Smith, who played sparingly as a true freshman last season, catching two passes for 19 yards. "That's his biggest attribute. I try to complement that."

Smith is right there with Hamlett in terms of receiving ability. Both have made acrobatic catches normally made only by wide receivers.

"We work well together," says Hamlett, who rooms with Smith. "We're good friends. We spent a lot of time together working out during the offseason and (training) camp. I know what he's going to do on certain plays. I can play off him, which makes it a lot easier."

The flip side is the blocking that is required at tight end.

"That's always the hard part about that position," Riley says. "You're asking the guy to beat a defensive back, and then block a defensive end. Putting those two abilities together at the highest level is hard to do."

Hamlett has improved his blocking skills this season, thanks in no small part to grad assistant Kyle Devan, the former NFL offensive lineman who is working with tight ends this fall.

"Being 6-7 comes with difficulties at tight end," says Devan, a center at OSU from 2004-07. "We put an emphasis on him playing lower and not stopping his feet. With tall guys, when they get overextended or their feet stop, they have trouble blocking a shorter opponent.

"We're working on his head placement and his hands and most importantly, understanding what we're trying to accomplish. I'm not asking him to go out there and kick some guy's ass. I'm asking him to cover up (a defender). If we cover up, we let Storm (Woods) or Terron (Ward) make their money. Good things will happen."

Riley says Hamlett is very much on the radar of NFL scouts.

"They want you to block, but they use you as a weapon in the passing game in the NFL," says Riley, head coach of the San Diego Chargers from 1999-2001. "It's a simple deal. if you're trying to double- cover wide receivers, then your tight end gets isolated. Connor can make plays in those kind of situations."

For now, both Hamlett and Smith focus on being the next of a line of outstanding OSU tight ends during the Riley era, including Newton, Marty Maurer, Tim Euhus and Joe Halahuni.

"The thing Connor has going for him is Caleb, who can stretch the field as well," says Devan, who played with both Euhus and Newton. "Each is a great complement to what the other does.

"They're two good young guys who are still developing. But when it's all said and done, they could be the best tight-end duo we've ever had."

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